Demand declines for midlevel multimedia products

Midlevel multimedia software packages marketed strictly for use in creating jazzed-up presentations - complete with sound animation and video - have experienced a downturn in sales in recent months.

The decline is due in part to an explosion at the high end of the multimedia arena where Internet- and computer-based training products are hot. In addition the low end of the multimedia presentation market has seen healthy sales as well with many users turning to Microsoft Corp.'s PowerPoint and related add-on packages.

Together high- and low-end growth has put the squeeze on the middle market forcing some vendors to revise their product strategies. Midlevel multimedia presentation products include Asymetrix Corp.'s Compel Astound Inc.'s Astound and Aimtech Corp.'s now-defunct IconAuthor SE. Such products are billed as easy-to-use packages that inject multimedia effects into everyday presentations which are all too often bogged down by boring bulleted talking points.

Even though some of these products cost less than $100 (a few top $1 000) it seems that users are not biting. For example Compel at $49 offers users a "specialist" that guides users through the creation of interactive presentations assisting them through the steps necessary to add video audio Object Linking and Embedding 2.0 objects and animation effects among others.

An integrated outliner helps users organize content and a multiple-view interface lets them edit and view slides interactively on a split screen. But after Compel's sales began sagging recently Asymetrix decided to cease updating the product opting to maintain the product's small but rather dedicated user base according to an Asymetrix spokeswoman. "A lot of people who use it won't use anything else " she said adding that many of those people work for the federal government. "But a lot of people want to do more than Compel can do."

While Asymetrix is willing to hang on to its midrange multimedia presentation product Aimtech is dropping its line. Robert Bierenbaum Aimtech's vice president of marketing said the firm has entirely abandoned its IconAuthor SE product which debuted only last spring. At $1 295 IconAuthor SE was to be a scaled-down version of Aimtech's flagship IconAuthor. IconAuthor is priced around $5 000 and is used by agencies such as the Army to devise multimedia presentations and learning tools to aid in helicopter training.

IconAuthor SE was a go as of last summer but the company has since decided that "bolt-on" technology that lacks critical ties to agency intranets and/or the Internet is not the way to go Bierenbaum said. "We've decided to re-engineer our products " he said. "We are going to base our whole new generation of products on Java." IconAuthor SE was a casualty of that decision.

Also reported wounded in the multimedia presentation software battle is Astound several sources said. Astound failed to return repeated phone calls.Multimedia meanwhile seems to be moving upward toward high-end training applications embedded in agency intranets or on the Internet. Asymetrix for example is putting its energy behind other products such as its higher-end ToolBook II Assistant which allows users to create - without the need for programming - Internet-based training that can be used to meet many presentation needs.

The Internet capability is key in an environment in which in-person presentations are declining the Asymetrix spokeswoman said. Federal ToolBook II Assistant users include the Naval Professional Development and Technology Center. In another high-end product push Aimtech released its IconAuthor 7.0 earlier this month. The product features Unix compatibility access to content residing on the Internet and intranets on-line application delivery and access to information in legacy databases.

Macromedia Inc. likewise offers a variety of multimedia products that can tackle presentation-making requirements and additional functions. The company reported healthy sales of its computer-based training product Director and its high-end Authorware product. The company released Version 6.0 of Authorware this month. "Both Authorware and Director are flexible enough to do presentations " said John Joaquin national sales manager for government. "Authorware we are promoting as a solution for computer-based training. Director we are targeting for multimedia presentations Internet training and interactive information."

Both products allow delivery on CD-ROM and the World Wide Web and both can be combined with Macromedia's Shockwave component which is designed as a Web development package. Despite the lull in midtier products the multimedia market as a whole is doing well.

Frank Harms vice president of Exton Pa.-based Softmart said he sees tremendous growth in federal sales of multimedia products. "This particular market is growing at 40 percent-plus a year" in the federal market alone he said. Although growing multimedia within the federal government is a relatively small area according to Randy Lee director of government sales for ASAP Software Express. "The problem is that for true multimedia authoring capability you are dealing with a niche of people usually doing in-house training agencywide." For that reason ASAP does not include this class of products in its mainstream government offerings. "It is such a small niche [that] it is not worth putting on the [General Services Administration] schedule " Lee said.

And as for low-end needs in which a government official is expected to turn out a zippy presentation Microsoft's Office suite can meet the requirements of 75 to 80 percent of the federal government Lee said. "There are also a number of add-ons to PowerPoint which really bring multimedia full circle " he said. Microsoft's January launch of Office 97 which includes an updated version of PowerPoint was another blow to multimedia presentation software makers. But some companies have managed to harness Microsoft's momentum.

Three-D Graphics for example has developed Compadre which now operates within Office 97 according to Don Norton an assistant program manager for the Los Angeles company. Compadre "really enhances PowerPoint presentations by offering 120 design templates that look much nicer than PowerPoint's " Norton said. He added that Compadre's sales have remained strong as the company has managed to ride Microsoft's coattails. "I just think the PowerPoint user base is so large [that] you have a guaranteed audience " Norton said.

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